Music

On New Album ‘Pretemporada,’ Milton James Steps Out of Dënver’s Shadow and Into the Light

Lead Photo: Photo by Manuela Bocaz
Photo by Manuela Bocaz

As another strange and wonderful decade hurdles to a close, nostalgic minds have been hard at work reminiscing on the remarkable music that defined us along the way. For many fans of Latin American indie, the Chilean pop explosion ushered a refreshing new era of roots songwriting and forward-thinking musical exploration, which led much of the international community to take studious note in its wake. One of the architects of this artsy, danceable wave is Milton Mahan, co-founder of Dënver and one of the most accomplished producers and songwriters in recent Chilean memory.

Alongside acts like Gepe, Javiera Mena and Alex Anwandter, Dënver was a crucial force within the rising tides of Chilean indie. Conceived with fellow singer-songwriter Mariana Montenegro, the band embraced chamber pop and disco as vehicles for their highly evocative compositions. Last year, after four cherished albums and numerous world tours, the pair decided to call it quits, citing burgeoning solo careers and a need for an extended breather from the band. Over 2019, Montenegro has dropped a string of 90s house-infused singles, recasting herself as a retro club diva in the vein of Robin S and Martha Wash, while Mahan has remained busy releasing a series of fine art-inspired EPs ahead of his layered and surprising new album Pretemporada.

“In Dënver I used to delegate much of [the spotlight] to Mariana,” Mahan tells Remezcla, pondering the dawn of a new artistic age. “A lot of the promotional work for Dënver was not always compatible with being in the studio, working on videos, etc. It’s very demanding and time consuming, so in Dënver I liked operating from the shadows.”

Photo by Manuela Bocaz

Finally stepping into the light, Mahan has embraced this new chapter as a clean career slate, donning a fresh stage moniker as Milton James and accompanied by visuals imbuing the recondite star with an aura of vintage leading man. Embracing the theme of transition, Pretemporada began to materialize earlier this year with two three-track EPs titled Pop Barroco and Pop Impresionista, which provided short but triumphant glimpses of a secluded genius increasingly willing to open up to his fans and the world. Pretemporada breaks from previous Mahan-helmed projects like Nva Orleans and De Janeiros, where he created beautiful, expansive set pieces while also veering into puzzling, often indecipherable territory.

“It’s difficult looking at it all so externally,” he says. “All of my projects that are not Dënver have been cryptic and hermetic. This time the goal is more mainstream, the songs are more pop, which speaks a bit to what we did in Dënver. Now I’m the center of attention, which is a very new experience for me.”

Pretemporada was produced in conjunction with Fernando Herrera, a Chilean studio wiz with hands in massive records by Javiera Mena (Otra Era, 2014), Planeta No (Matucana, 2014), Gepe (Estilo Libre, 2016) and Playa Gótica (Amigurumi, 2017). The pop sensibilities of both artists can be heard throughout, with songs like “6,6” and “Muriendo Por Dentro,” channeling the juvenile melancholy that made Dënver profoundly relatable indie stars. “Yo te he visto bailando, saltando y estando muriendo por dentro,” sings Mahan on “Muriendo Por Dentro,” directly calling out a generation that hides its inner turmoil behind the cheerful veneer of social media. On “La Misteriosa Muerte,” fans are treated to another longtime Mahan hallmark – somber, cinematic songwriting juxtaposed against a soaring musical canvas, similar examples of which can be found in Dënver favorites like “Las Fuerzas” and “Los Últimos Veranos.” “La Misteriosa Muerte” subtly unpacks the sinister circumstances behind the murder of controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – less interested in passing judgment over his lurid lifestyle, and instead fascinated with the morbid imagery of events leading to his death.

In previous interviews, Mahan has described Pretemporada as an album told in three movements – a clever reference to the record’s classical music influences and an apt metaphor for its slightly muddled pacing. Pop Barroco and Pop Impresionista were not only fantastic orchestral appetizers ahead of the main course, but they also provided fans a solid conceptual bridge from Dënver into the Milton James era. The new batch of Pretemporada tracks blasts fans straight into present day; updating Chic-style grooves on “XXX,” conjuring James Blake sad boy vibes on “Meciendo,” and even invoking laidback reggaeton swag on “Caer Contigo.” While certainly a refreshing departure from the chamber pop flourishes we’ve now come to expect, this cluster of modernist songs can’t help but sound oddly anachronistic within the overall package.

“I’m a fan of good songs,” offers Mahan when asked about his musical nimbleness. “I love songs that you hum and end up whistling to yourself and don’t even know why. That to me transcends genres. Disco has always been a vector of my career, because it’s one of the genres that spark the most fantasy, but I also grew up in the 90s, so rock was very important in my adolescence. Those two things coexist inside me.”

Not everything on Pretemporada is dance floor hedonism, with some of the album’s most beautiful moments coming in slow, pensive waves. “Tanta Devastación” features rising Spanish diva La Bien Querida in a magnificent opus that steadily builds from acoustic guitar whisper to rapturous symphonic bedlam. Harkening to Mahan’s aforementioned love of sticky melodies, “Tu Pelo Peinar” becomes Pretemporada’s most unlikely earworm, drawing the listener into an inescapable whirlpool of lurching, gauzy piano masterfully coupled with the singer’s own syrupy vocals.

Ultimately, Pretemporada contains something for everyone – whether you’re a nostalgic Dënver acolyte, or a newcomer curious to see where one of this generation’s most thoughtful and adventurous musical minds leads us next. In any case, Pretemporada is a powerful affirmation to live in the present, mindful of the past but firmly trudging into the future. Yes, Dënver has come to an end, but now is the season of Milton James.